When Feminism Complicates a Father-Daughter Relationship

Father and daughter

I hadn’t spoken to my father for a year when I came out to him on Christmas night in the early ’90s. After a reunion that consisted of catching up over opening presents, green bean casserole, and red wine, he hugged me goodbye on his front stoop and said, “Don’t be a stranger.” I turned toward my car, shivering in the Connecticut winter, looked back and said, “I have something to tell you.” He gazed at me in a manner that told me that my secret was out and said, “I know. I love you, kid.” And that was it. I had come out to my dad. 

On Father’s Day in 2003, sitting beside my then-girlfriend in her Toyota Camry, feeling anxious and horrible for having allowed another year to pass without speaking to him, I dialed my father’s number. We made some small talk, I wished him a happy Father’s Day, and he told me he couldn’t eat, that he couldn’t swallow any food, and that he had made a doctor’s appointment. A month later, my stepmother called, sobbing. My father had been diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer. That call in June would become the last Father's Day call I ever made to him. 

My early adult life was peppered with years during which my father and I didn’t speak, and for no other reason than what appeared to be some sort of apathy on his part and a stubborn refusal to bend to what I perceived were gender stereotypes on my end that had us radio silent for 12 months or more. Calls and mea culpas were typically spurred by the holidays and my overwhelming remorse for allowing another year to pass between us. I remember the handful of times when I picked up the phone receiver that was mounted to the wall in my apartment to discover that my father had actually dialed my number — that he wasn’t waiting for me to make the first move. Those rare occasions typically involved him having to inform me of the death of my grandparents, or of an aunt we lost too young.

Once, after he’d had mild heart attack in his mid-50s, he called me just to see how I was, and while that was probably 22 years ago now, I remember I was in the kitchen of my one-bedroom apartment in Hartford’s West End, and I was surprised, happy, and a little bit worried that he called. I thought he must have been feeling mortal, and that frightened me. Whenever my father and I did join together for a holiday or just a visit, we spoke endlessly about music, movies, and books, and laughed raucously together over what may have caught our attention on television. And we often shared in-jokes about the people around us. 

For a sailor who served during the height of the Vietnam war, my dad, Alan (Gilly to his friends), would eventually share some of the most heartfelt protest music of the time with me. The Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary albums on vinyl that he gave to me when I was just 7 years old remain among my most prized possessions. I’m fairly certain I was the only preteen who trudged the streets of my hometown of Plainville, Conn., carrying a boombox and singing along to Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 in full voice without a hint of irony. 

It’s now 13 years after I watched my father take his last breath in a hospital room, and now I've been the feminism editor for The Advocate for five months, writing daily with outrage about the indignities the Trump administration has rained down upon women since taking office. I look back to my youth and to my implacability to accept my father’s reluctance to call as part of who he was. For his part, I don’t know if it was the expectation as the parent that his child should be the one to reach out, or if there were some unwritten rule of masculinity that dictated that the man never calls. That’s what my stepmother, a woman from a fairly traditional Italian family with whom I got along very well, told me once, anyway.

“He’s a man. They’re not supposed to be the ones who call,” I remember her telling me. And yet my mother and stepfather, who married about seven years after my parents got divorced when I was 11, never missed the opportunity to watch me march in the band or sing “Day by Day” in our high school production of Godspell. Shortly after high school, my stepfather’s job took them from Connecticut to Vermont to San Francisco to New Jersey, and yet, if they were within a day's drive of the restaurant where I worked, they would travel for hours, cooler packed in the backseat, just to sit at my table, where I would attempt to make conversation with them while meeting the needs of the customers at my four or five other tables. 

I was in my early 20s and coming out as a lesbian and a nascent feminist when my stepmother suggested that men don’t do the calling. I think I even retorted, “Then thank God I’m gay,” a phrase I often invoked when perceived gendered behavior reared its head. Part of my confusion with her answer stemmed from the guy I thought my dad was, the man who often told me the story about how one year at the Newport Folk Festival, he had begun to leave when he heard a clarion call of a soprano voice come out over the final number — that it was Baez and that her voice kept him from leaving. He was the guy who introduced me to Dolly Parton’s music, who took me to see Lily Tomlin in The Incredibly Shrinking Woman on one of our Sundays together after the divorce, and we guffawed loudly — father and daughter laughing from deep in our guts. And he was the man who from his hospital bed, the one from which he would die just six months after being diagnosed with cancer, who told me his favorite movie was Pleasantville, the gentle, affecting film where emotion literally flowed from black and white to color. 

That night in 2003 when my father told me he couldn’t eat, I had adamantly avoided calling him for about 14 months. I was in my early 30s and I’d gone back to school full-time to earn my bachelor’s degree. I’d been given a once-in-a-lifetime ride to Mount Holyoke College, and for several semesters I studied, wrote papers, and waited tables. It was the Easter a year and a few months before that Father's Day and I’d just finished a 10-hour holiday brunch shift. I called my dad between cashing out from work and heading home to write a paper for a world cinema class. Out of character for him, he seemed irritated that I wouldn’t be able to make it to their family meal, but school was my priority, and as if it were some sort of quid pro quo, I became irritated that he barely asked me how school was going. I dug my heels in deep and held out on calling him for a long time. I muscled my way through English and film theory classes and allowed my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, his birthday, and Easter to pass before we talked on the fated Father’s Day. 

My dad was in and out of the hospital with great regularity from his diagnosis in July and his death on February 1, just two days into my final semester of college. If there were any lingering questions at the time about whether or not he loved me, or cared, or even noticed what was happening in my life, we sorted them out through our hospital room conversations about pop culture. Once, from his bed, tubes in his arms, stoic and strong, he said, “You know what they say is the greatest movie of all time?” And I thought it was sweet that he was reaching out to me in the language that I love — film. I asked him what he thought it was, imagining he would follow what was at the time the American Film Institute’s top film and name Citizen Kane, but he surprised me. He said, “Battleship Potemkin,” Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film about the Russian Revolution renowned for its Odessa Steps sequence. I smiled, impressed because my father had been paying attention to what I’d been studying at school all along. 

Five years after I said goodbye to my father, Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary died, and I was besotted. I cried for hours while listening to “Early Morning Rain” on repeat on YouTube. It seems unreal to me now that for years I obdurately protested my father’s reluctance to pick up the phone, couching his inaction in what I perceived was a slight against my gender, yet the symbol that cut me to the core five years after his death was the loss of a female icon famed as much for her role as a peaceful activist as for her stately beauty and inimitable alto. When I'm at my job writing about the executive orders DonaldTrump has churned out that assail women's reproductive rights and that have rescinded protections for women in the workplace, I think about my father, and I think that I fought the wrong battle against a guy who loved three-part harmonies and a movie — Pleasantville — in which the world is colored by the ability to feel. 

TRACY GILCHRIST is the feminism editor for The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @TracyEGilchrist.

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